Duct and Cover 

But I'm having a hard time buying into the idea that a roll of duct tape and some plastic sheeting is going to do me any good. Ridge needs to rethink this thing.

Americans back then were terrified that Russia was going rain nukes down on us. And what was the government's advice? Duck and cover. Roll yourself into a ball and hide under your school desk. If you're outside, find a ditch and crawl in it. Do what Bert does: Pull yourself inside your shell. It's unbelievable today, but "Duck and Cover" actually suggested that if people in Hiroshima had ducked and covered, thousands of lives would have been saved.

And we bought it. We held drills in school, crawling under our desks and cowering until the all-clear sounded.

Yeah, right. Like ducking and covering would buy us more than a millisecond to be terrified before ... well ... crispy-critter time.

Thirty years later, "The Atomic Café" was a compilation of scenes from "Duck and Cover" plus some grisly training films and scary pictures of atomic tests in Nevada. It mocked the fact that the government had actually tried to persuade us that there would be life after Doomsday. By the 1980s, we were ready to laugh at what we'd once believed. Like Bert the Turtle, we'd been willing to accept any possibility of surviving a nuclear holocaust and our fears of the unspeakable.

Was it just me, or was anybody else thinking this recent Orange Alert business was déj… vu all over again? And now they tell us that maybe it was all based on misinformation. Misinformation? Tell that to the guy in Connecticut who wrapped his entire house in plastic and duct tape.

We didn't have color codes back when Bert was our role model. The government didn't use rainbow hues to tell us we should be alert or perhaps bracing for the unthinkable.

I suppose we've become more sophisticated — or more stylish — since then.

But these 21st-century alert levels — colorful though they may be — strike me as just about as effective as Bert's solution. Which is to say, not very.

This month, they told us to stockpile a three-day supply of food and water. To buy a roll of duct tape and some plastic sheeting. But not to overworry.

You've gotta laugh — or maybe cry — when you remember Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on television a couple of weeks ago. He said the threat level was quite high. But when a skeptical reporter asked whether it was safe to let his family vacation in Europe, Ridge said "Sure." Huh? There seems to be a disconnect here. Buy duct tape and plastic sheeting ... and a couple of airline tickets to romantic places? It just didn't compute.

Remember fallout shelters? Some Americans dug big holes in their backyards in the 1950s and built underground rooms where they could hide from a nuclear blast. But did they ever think what it would be like to come out afterward? Would the world have been a place they'd want to live in, or that they could live in?

Today, it's plastic sheeting and duct tape. Bert's not around, but the message is similar: duct and cover.

And what would there be today when we emerge from our sealed-up apartments and houses? It seems that Secretary Ridge didn't want to talk about that. Or maybe nobody wanted to ask.

"When we raise the level of alert, when we raise the national consciousness about the level of attack, that in itself is a deterrence. ... Just being more ready, being more prepared, is a deterrent in and of itself," Ridge said on television.

OK, I can see how being alert might be smart. If I see a couple of shady characters running away from a strange truck parked next to a pillar in an underground garage, I might want to pass the word on to somebody in authority.

But I'm having a hard time buying into the idea that a roll of duct tape and some plastic sheeting is going to do me any good. Ridge needs to rethink this thing.

Sure, I'm more of a cynic now than I was back in the day. Who doesn't become more distrustful of authoritative reassurances as they grow older. That's why we laugh when somebody says, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."

So what are we to do next time somebody cries "wolf"? Darned if I know. Perhaps all we can do is hunker down and wait to see what happens. I think I have a roll of duct tape in the junk drawer, but I'm not headed for the hardware store for plastic sheeting.

If the day comes, I may change my tune. Today, it's all theoretical. Tomorrow, who knows? I might even dig a hole in the backyard. If there's time. S

Don Dale is Style Weekly's television critic.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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